Presidential Elections in Uruguay on October 31

  • On October 31, Uruguayans vote for a new President and Broad Front candidate Tabaré Vásquez is on the path to become the country’s first leftist president.
  • Vásquez’s election would mark a shift towards a left-of-center government, which would be in large part due to the failed economic policies of his conservative predecessors. Most Uruguayans are weary of privatization and other neo-liberal reforms, an issue which Vásquez has come out strongly against.
  • While the conservative Blanco candidate Jorge Larrañaga is his main competitor, Vásquez’s promise to fight poverty and act pragmatically, while pursuing leftist social policies, makes him likely to come out on top.

Last-minute, down-to-the-wire campaigning … controversy over presidential debates … polls that swing back and forth in their estimates of the outcome of upcoming elections … Although the U.S. electorate and the eyes of much of the rest of the world are focused on the race between George W. Bush and John Kerry, another election is heating up in the Southern hemisphere as Uruguayans head to the polls on October 31. The elections in Uruguay, of course, will not have huge global repercussions, but they do hold out the possibility that Uruguay may join the long list of Latin American countries that have elected left-leaning presidents to power. The front-runner in Uruguay’s upcoming elections is Tabaré Vázquez of the Encuentro Progresista–Frente Amplio (Progressive Encounter- Broad Front), a coalition of social democrats, communists, social Christians, radicals and ex-Tupamaro guerrilla fighters. If Vázquez wins on October 31 – or, in the event that he fails to secure an outright majority, in run-off elections scheduled for November 29 – he would be the first left-wing president in Uruguay’s history.

A History of the Left
The roots of the Left go back to the 1960s, when the Broad Front was formed as an umbrella group of various leftist political movements – including the political wing of the Tupamaro guerrillas. Despite the fact that its members were disproportionately targeted for repression during the 1973-1985 military regime, the Front reemerged as a strong third force after the transition back to democracy. During the 1980s, the Left won approximately 30% of the vote in Montevideo (home to almost half of Uruguay’s population) and 10% in conservative rural areas. Support for the Left grew thanks to its steadfast opposition to the 1986 amnesty law that gave immunity to military personnel responsible for human rights violations. The Front was part of a broad movement to put the law to a referendum; although the referendum was defeated in April 1989, support for the Left increased. That same year, Tabaré Vázquez was elected mayor of Montevideo and has been reelected ever since with increasing majorities.

In 1994, Vázquez came within a handful of votes of winning the presidency. Colorado party candidate Julio Maria Sanguinetti (who had already served as president from 1985-1990) was elected president again with just over 32% of the vote; the Nationalists (Blancos) received just over 31% and the Broad Front, just under 31%. Support for the Left had increased due to growing disenchantment with the market-oriented and narrowly based economic reforms enacted by outgoing President Lacalle of the Nationalist party. Lacalle had slashed import tariffs and took the country into Mercosur, but his efforts to push through major privatizations were only partially successful. Although he did manage to privatize the state airline in 1994, Lacalle’s proposal to sell 51% of the state telephone company to foreign bidders was resoundingly defeated in a 1992 referendum.

The Fallout of Traditional Parties

Growing electoral support for the Left prompted Uruguay’s two traditional parties – the Colorados and Blancos – to sponsor an electoral reform to create a run-off system. As intended, this thwarted the Front’s chances at winning the presidency. In 1999, Vázquez won a plurality (39%) in the first round, appealing to voters by promising to create jobs with increased spending and threatening the rich with higher income taxes. Since he did not achieve an absolute majority, however, the election was forced into a run-off. In the second round, Colorado candidate Jorge Batlle (a 72-year-old senator and member of illustrious line of politicians) convinced voters to stick with the status quo. Batlle campaigned on a solid record of economic growth under outgoing President Sanguinetti and charged that Vázquez would introduce a universal income tax system that would mean a massive tax hike. Batlle also courted Blanco voters, promising Nationalists cabinet jobs in a “national unity” government in return for their support in second round balloting. Batlle’s strategy proved successful, allowing him to pull past Vázquez in the second round of the elections; nonetheless, the Left proved once again that it was a force with which to be reckoned.

The elections this year are thus Vázquez’s third attempt at the presidency and once again, the Broad Front will have to count on combined opposition from the Colorados and Blancos if the elections go to a second round. At the moment, polls show Vázquez’s support fluctuating right around 50%, with approximately 30% of those polled indicating a preference for Nationalist party candidate Jorge Larrañaga and 10% for Colorado party candidate Guillermo Stirling. Support for the Left is at an all-time high due to a combination of factors, including widespread rejection of the neo-liberal policies that the Blancos and Colorados support. Since the last elections, Uruguay’s economy has been hit hard by drought and the Brazilian devaluation of 1999, the closure of meat markets to Uruguayan exports after an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease in 2001, and the Argentine economic collapse, which triggered a run on Uruguay’s banks and a dramatic plunge in the value of its currency. As a result, Uruguay’s economy shrank by 11% and unemployment reached 20% by 2002; poverty and inflation rose, and so too did emigration. Although Uruguay managed to avoid defaulting on its public debt and growth has resumed, unemployment still remains high – a situation likely to palpably benefit the Left.

Uruguayans will also vote on a referendum measure sponsored by a coalition of labor unions and citizens groups, which states that surface and subsoil resources “form part of the state public domain” and that sanitation and water service should be provided exclusively by the state. The measure is predicted to win, given Uruguayans’ general rejection of privatization. In a referendum held in December 2003, a majority voted to repeal a law that would have ended the monopoly of the state-owned oil company and opened it up to outside investors. In both cases, the Left has called for the state to retain control over industries and services such as banking, oil refining, communications, water and electricity. Although critics complain that government control leads to guaranteed inefficiency, most Uruguayans seem to favor a large role for the state in the economy as well as continued support for advanced social programs and welfare protections.

Future of Uruguay to be Decided on 2nd Round

The big question going into the elections is therefore whether or not Vázquez will cross the 50% threshold that would give the Progressive Encounter-Broad Front a first run victory. Vázquez’s main competitor, Blanco candidate Jorge Larrañaga, represents a new generation (unlike Vázquez) and comes from Uruguay’s interior. Although Larrañaga clearly will not defeat Vázquez in the first round, he hopes to repeat the outcome of the 1999 elections, drawing upon support from the other traditional party (this time around, the Colorados) in order to outpoll the Left’s candidate in the second round. Toward this end, Larrañaga has already suggested that he will put together a government that draws people from both the Blanco and Colorado parties. Larrañaga has criticized Vásquez for refusing to debate the other parties’ presidential candidates and charges that Vásquez is trying to fool voters through a “centrist makeover” of the Left’s policies.

For his part, Vázquez has emphasized that he is committed to fighting poverty and providing economic and social assistance to poorer Uruguayans. At the same time, Vázquez has cautioned voters that they will have to be patient because changes will be implemented gradually. In response to charges that an EP-FA government would implement radical policies, Vázquez has indicated that he would honor Uruguay’s international commitments. He has also dismissed concerns that a Leftist government would alienate the military by reopening the issue of human rights. Overall, Vázquez seems to identify himself with pragmatic leftist presidents like Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, whose calls for social and economic justice have not challenged an overriding emphasis on macroeconomic stability. Uruguayans have not only been able to see Vázquez in action as the successful mayor of Montevideo, they have more recently observed the success of Leftist governments in neighboring countries. Given Vázquez’s charisma and centrist appeal, as well as his camaraderie with like-minded Latin American presidents, he is likely to join their ranks on October 31.